Tracing Lost Tech

MSI laptop computer

MSI laptop computer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve had the ability to track, locate and remotely disable stolen cars and vans for a while but attaching the tracker to your laptop just wasn’t practical but now, thanks to our increasingly connected world it’s becoming possible.

Today it’s inevitable that, unless it’s stripped down for parts, a smartphone, tablet or laptop will connect to the internet somehow and it’s then that modern tech can call home for help.  Smartphones can be equipped with apps – iPhones have the Find my iPhone feature which can be used to track and remotely wipe a stolen, or lost phone – for Android you have apps like Where’s My Droid, Android Lost and Plan B all of which can be used to find and wipe them too.  All of these apps have varying features but they include providing GPS coordinates, alarms, taking photos with the camera, activating the ringer (in case it’s nearby) and preventing apps being changed – in case someone has stolen it and tries to get rid of the tracker.  Plan B is different in that it is installed to the phone after it’s stolen – you download it to your phone via the web access version of the Play store and once installed it sends its location to your Gmail account.  This last one made possible by the cloud integration of devices these days and being able to send to your device rather than loading things onto it.

For laptops you can do similar things with apps like Prey which can track your device via IP addresses, you can view webcam shots to try to identify a culprit or location, you can lock the computer remotely, change wallpaper, display warnings and notices and wipe browser data, which is fine unless the thief has already wiped the computer.

Digital cameras can be located roughly by searching for their serial numbers online.  How this works is that if someone takes a photo with your camera and uploads it to a photo sharing site or anywhere else that preserves the metadata – all the information on which camera and lens took the photo and what settings were used – then you should be able to find it by matching the serial number stored in the photo.  Again it will only provide clues as to who has your gear, the police would have to approach the website hosting the images to get any details of who uploaded them.

Information from all these sources can be provided to the police to investigate, it’s never wise to try to track down the person who has your gear, sometimes it could work out bad for you or you might end up accusing someone who innocently found or bought the thing.

One thing to remember is to mark gear if possible with your phone number – never your home address as this can show a thief that A) you have expensive kit in your house and B) you’re not at home right now, and they know where you live.   On cameras and phones take a picture of a piece of paper with your phone number and possibly a message saying that if they’re reading the message it means that the device has been lost or stolen and asking them to contact you – a thief would delete this of course, if they noticed it.

Another tip is to photograph all your kit, log the serial numbers and store this information securely both online and printed if possible, again this can help to locate, identify and most importantly return your tech to you.

As many people have said though, as the chances of getting the actual device back are often slim, the best use of most of these apps is simply to wipe or disable the device, making it either unusable to the thief, making their life difficult, or at the very least removing your personal data – which could in so many ways be more valuable to them which is another good reminder to set a strong login password on your PC too.

Updated:  I’ve just been sent a link to an entertaining tale of why you shouldn’t steal a hacker’s computer – it’s worth a watch, even if you’re not a techy person and shows how even not having a login password can have it’s uses [YouTube]  Many thanks Alasdair.

[Lifehacker has more advice here]

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